Thursday, March 01, 2007


by Kow Shih-Li

I remember the first time I saw Baby. She lay in a crib, one in a long line. Third cot from the right. She was wrapped in a pink flannel blanket, like a fish in newspaper. There were some others wrapped in blue and yellow. If the blues were boy babies, then I had to guess what the yellow ones were.

The young nurse on the other side of the window had walked me here. She wore a green uniform and rubber soled white shoes like the ones I used for school. They made no sound on the shiny floor when she walked. She pointed Baby out, jabbing the air above Baby's head with her finger while her mouth shaped the words "your sister'. I pressed my nose to the window. The glass felt like cold metal. If I crossed my eyes, which I did often, I could see my own reflection. When I uncrossed them, I could see the head of the brand new little sister that Mother made.

I did not want a baby sister. I did not want a baby anything, much less one that looked like a hairless chimpanzee or some other animal. She did not even look human but none of the other wrapped up babies did either.

I turned away. The hospital smelt like my doctor's clinic, the one that Mother takes me to when I have a fever. Only this was much bigger and a lot colder. I went and sat on a row of four blue plastic chairs joined together at the base. I sat on one end and if I rocked my seat, the whole row followed. Mother was not around to stop me, so I rocked back and forth, making a grinding sound.

"Stop it, girl." It was a nurse in a blue uniform. I did not hear her sneak up on me because she was wearing those same silent shoes. I stopped because she looked fierce. Her eyes bulged when she glared. The type I did not like. She was also fat which meant that if she hit me, it would hurt. When she left, I rocked a little more but the fun was gone.

I walked down the corridor. No one paid any attention to me except for a walking baby with plastic shoes that made a loud squeak with every step. He tried to chase me and I had to stop so that he would be still and the shoes would be quiet. I wanted the blue nurse to come say "Stop it" and take the squeaky shoes away but the baby's father swept him up with a laugh before she came.

I stopped at every ward and looked inside. Each room had tired mothers who looked like the air had been let out of them. Everyone had bad hair and loose clothes. The opposite of wedding dinners when all the ladies had good hair and tight dresses. The babies were like parasites, sucking the air and good hair days out of their mothers through the breast. I must ask Mother if she ever thought of me as a parasite.

I was at the entrance to Mother's ward. It had 2 beds but the other was empty today. A lady was there until last night. Her baby was in a glass box under a light. "He's yellow," the nurse had said but he looked very brown to me and not at all yellow. I hated the sight of that baby under the light. He looked like a wrinkly, newborn kitten worming around on the floor with his eyes closed. I was glad that he was gone today and there would be no more mewing sounds.

I could hear Father's voice. Mother was crying. I stood outside the door, where I could hear without being seen.

Mother kept saying,"I don't know, I don't know, I don't know."

"Don't lie to me. This is not the time." Father sounded very angry. Angrier than the time Mother scratched his car driving through our front gate.

"No, I am not lying. Please believe me. I don't know why."

I don't know if Father believed her. I don't know if I believe Mother when she says she's not lying because she does sometimes. She often says something tastes good when it does not to make me eat it. She once said she could not take me to the park because she was feeling tired but five minutes later, she agreed to go to the mall when third Aunty called. I think she lied about being tired. Like the time she lied about why she was late picking me up from school. She said she was at the grocery shop but there were no groceries in the car.

Father said, "It's impossible."

"Maybe the nurses switched…"

"I was right outside the delivery room when they brought it out."

"Please don't call her 'it'. She's your daughter."

"I can't be sure about that, can I?" Father's voice leaked out through the door and pushed through the corridors. I pressed myself against the wall so that the anger in his voice would not touch me. I decided to stay outside to keep watch for the blue nurse who might come to shush him.

Mother started crying again. "God help me, I swear. I did nothing wrong."

That day, my father left never to return and I had to hold Mother's hand for five days as she cried. Doctors came and gave her injections that made her sleep. They also gave her bad dreams because she tossed and moaned in her sleep. Baby did not feed at her breast. Nurses gave her the bottle instead and patted me on the head. They said things like, "Be a good girl", "Poor thing" or "Take care of your mummy". I never answered.

Grandma came to see Baby in the baby zoo. That was what I called the room with the glass window. She did not coo to her or tickle her cheek like some of the other grandmothers did. Mother did not know she came. Grandma gave me one hundred ringgit and some chicken rice. That was also the last time I saw Grandma, the mother of my father.

From then on, it was Mother, Baby and me. Mother went back to her work, I went back to school and Baby went to the babysitter every morning. That was how things were everyday every year.

Last week, Baby turned four. Mother said, "Let's make a happy photograph." Baby in the middle, between Mother and me, and the pink frosted birthday cake in the front. It is a very nice photograph. We are all smiling and we look the alike, as though someone had taken three photographs of the same person at different times and stuck them together.

Look at us. I have Mother's eyes. Single lidded and almost disappearing when we smile. So does Baby. When I smile, only my lower teeth show, just like Baby and Mother. Even our hair is the same, black, straight and flat falling close to the head. The only feature Baby and I have that is not Mother's is the broad, flat nose with the upturned nostrils. That came from Father.

I am going to make a Chinese New Year card with this photograph. Last year, I made one with a drawing of fishes with gold sequins for scales. The year before that was cut-out patterns from red paper. Father calls me sometimes. When he does, he tells me about his new job and Grandma. I hope he calls this Chinese New Year when he gets the photograph.

He will see how alike Baby and I are. How can he not see? How can anyone not see? The only difference is that Mother and I are the colour of milk tea, Baby's skin is the colour of roasted chestnuts. That's all.